Four Rehearsals for Alice Notley
i. [on the descent of allette]
My first interaction with Notley’s writing was when I read Berrigan’s Sonnets for a class and loved her afterword to the collection.
Her presence in this version of Sonnets returned to me a year or so later when I went to my local bookstore to see if they had a specific Notley book. The guy looked her up in their database, telling me the only book they ever (ever!) carried with her writing in it was this copy of Berrigan’s Sonnets. I fumed. I ordered books by her and never picked them up, later shamed the bookstore staff by saying that I wasn’t buying them on principle, as they should stock her poetry. They’ve kept up with her since (I’ve bought newer books by her there), so I suppose my act was effective.
Her being marked as little more than Ted Berrigan’s wife rather than a formidable poet in her own right continues to provoke a dark fire in me, for it cannot be anything other than a belief founded in misogyny.
After Sonnets, I read Notley’s At Night the States about Berrigan’s death, then her collection of essays, Coming After and in it her essay/talk “The ‘Feminine’ Epic” about all the death of loved ones she has survived, about The Descent of Alette, how it came about, Notley’s reasoning for using quotation marks to denote metric feet (a brilliant invention—its effectiveness to halt the eye continues to amaze me).
I took on Alette itself. It is a book you simultaneously want to savor and charge through.
The quotation marks help you to heed the former impulse.
Notley: “…if you read it aloud the quotation marks go away…and I’m inviting you to read aloud.”
Listening to Notley read it herself somehow makes it more powerful. The urgency of it is right at the surface. She’s nearly crying.
The Descent of Alette is one of my favorite collections of poetry. Ever. I continue to read it over and over. I’ve presented academic papers on it. I buy it for anyone who will read it. I even got Alice Notley to sign it (a reserved signature—script like a schoolteacher’s).
A couple of years ago, poet and artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman coordinated a marathon reading of Alette at a small dark art gallery in Highland Park, Los Angeles. He found several women to participate, set up eight chairs in a way that simulated a subway car (where a large portion of the book takes place), a microphone moving between the participants after each poem.
There were entrances and exits—a planned choreography.
I realize the irony of a man curating such an event but not vocally participating in its execution, and chances are Khalil does, too.
I brought my own copy to read along, sitting on the cement floor.
I found myself jealous of the women reading, annoyed at their affect, their not owning the book, their mistakes.
I hated myself for not being able to just enjoy the fucking miracle that was this night.
This was all in the first ten minutes.
Ultimately the hypnotic chanting of the text prevailed and I had no choice but to give myself up to it, Notley besting my neuroses.
I suppose the neuroses were a rehearsal for the external expressions of the text.
Alette proved too much—we only got through the first two books in the volume and we were well into the wee hours.
Khalil called it a night.
I was simultaneously disappointed—wanting to prove my devotion to the book by staying till daybreak if need be—and relieved to move my ass from concrete to my bed.
ii. [on close to me & closer… (the language of heaven) and désamère]
My obsession with The Descent of Alette stems from Notley’s yoking of feminist ideals and fantasy narrative in the epic.
It’s also freaky as hell and brushes up against dream-space in a way that is nothing short of intoxicating.
Vaginas turn to bone. Black tatters float in rivers of blood and contain personal histories only accessed once eaten.
Decapitated women are reunited with their heads.
I think Notley is obsessed with Alette too.
In her book that followed it, Mysteries of Small Houses, she writes (directly engaging the form of Alette):
“finishing Alette” “and I hate for it” “to be dead in me…” “I have no
interest, at this moment” “in” “its literary worth”
“All I care about” “is living it” “I want it” “alive again”
The most thrilling thing about Close to me & Closer… (The Language of Heaven) and Désamère—aside from the joy of reading them—is how they act as explorations of gestures that lead to The Descent of Alette.
Notley is practicing. Trying out these impulses that will ultimately lead to an incredible thing.
In Close to me & Closer, Notley interacts with her dead father in a call and response form (one page for him, one page for her), and heeds his mannerisms typographically.
There are underlines and ellipses to show his verbal habits, slowing the reader’s eye. The halted lyrical feel of this is very Alette-like.
Désamère involves many things, particularly the melding of Robert Desnos and Amère (the saint-heroine protagonist).
Désamère enters the desert to experience her necessary trials, where she is interrogated extensively by a male figure who is simultaneously friendly and off-putting (or as Notley describes him, “a Satan, a glibly pro-Human psychologist, whom she does sleep with, but whose ultimate wiles—the mind-fuck into consorting with society, as it exists—she resists”).
He is Alette’s Tyrant.
I found a reference to the “black tatter” that Alette finds and eats in Désamère.
In an interview Notley says that, though Alette took two years to write, other books were “rehearsals” for the epic.
Close to me & Closer and Désamère seem like the obvious rehearsals, but Notley states that Beginning with a Stain is where it first starts.
Then it continues in the elegy for her brother, “White Phosphorous.”
These are the first instances in which she uses the quotation marks to denote metric feet.
My impulse is to try to find these – to follow the arc of her movement toward the epic.
To find the predecessors and ferret out the bits that resurface in Alette.
What is it when one reads books of poetry only to find characters, ideas, and veins that continue in a later book by the same author?
iii. [on notley reading]
I saw Alice Notley read a couple of years ago. She started the event late because she did not like the way they had set up the stage—she demanded a podium, nice chairs for the Q&A.
She was right. The weird panel table looked like shit and she deserved better.
I loved that she did that.
Notley first read from Culture of One. Her voice was not at all how I heard her in my head when reading her poetry. When I played out how I thought it would sound or how the words communicated themselves to me. They had gravity and an even pace.
But now, here, she was brisk. Nearly chirpy.
She was sing-songing her way through the poem sequence in Culture of One that involves violence incurred on an innocent dog by villainous teenaged girls.
The portion of the book makes me so sad I actually thought, “Shit, she’s going to read this part” and cried a little as she read.
Instead of anger, the characters who know the dog well engage with grief and tenderness.
Before reading from The Songs and Tales of Ghouls, Notley explained its inspiration sprung from the rerelease of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1970 film version of the tale of Medea. Posters of the Italian opera singer Maria Callas as Medea were all over Paris. She began to rehearse the tale in her mind.
Medea’s tale being that of Jason’s wife, giver of the golden fleece, sorceress, killer of Jason’s second wife, killer of her two sons as revenge for Jason’s infidelity.
“I can’t watch the film,” Notley said. “I can’t watch her kill her sons.”
I had watched Medea just months before at the behest of a friend, ignorant of this connection.
When going to get my book signed I was tempted to tell her, “You know, she’s very gentle.”
For Callas is gentle when killing Medea’s sons, and the killings are as painless and kind as one can expect a mother to enact when her anger is directed elsewhere.
I realize this is hardly believable.
I rehearsed the interaction, and following potential outcomes in my mind, I saw the likelihood it would only make me seem the container of morbid thoughts. Ultimately I decided that saying something creepy to one of my favorite living poets is probably not a valuable use of my thirty-second interaction with her.
I was third in line. I told her she was amazing. She signed my copy of The Descent of Alette.
iv. [on death and failure]
Alice Notley has sustained a staggering amount of deaths of those close to her.
“It seems to me that my poetics is becoming a poetics of grief,” she says.
Her first husband, her second husband, her stepdaughter, her father, her brother.
Discussing her brother’s death in “The ‘Feminine’ Epic”: “Suddenly I, and more than myself, my sister-in-law and my mother, were being used, mangled, by forces which produce epic, and we had no say in the matter, never had, and worse had no story ourselves. We hadn’t acted. We hadn’t gone to war. We certainly hadn’t been ‘at court’ (in the regal sense), weren’t involved in governmental power structures, didn’t have voices which participated in public political discussion. We got to suffer, but without trajectory.”
All of these people died within a period of a couple of decades.
All were lives cut short due to illness or accident.
Notley often writes about death, includes the voices of the dead. She puts herself in trances to find voices with which to write. She says, “I would close my eyes and see things on my eyelids or take cues from dreams.”
The greatest test of my love for Alice Notley is in her giant books. She has three, at least that I know of: Alma, or the Dead Women, her new and selected, Grave of Light, and Reason and Other Women.
I own all three. I have not come close to succeeding in reading any of them.
For these are tomes—almost a letter-sized page, full of text from top to bottom. The page counts exceed 200.
I look at the blurbs in amazement, jealous of their writers’ determination.
I wonder if she even considered the books’ readability, or if were merely a heeding the outpouring of what was coursing through her mind.
Less concerned about the rehearsal of drafts than the heeding of cues.
For, as she says, “Poetry is a harmless thing to do. One does little harm writing poetry…It’s a wonderful art.”